As a 14-year-old in a small Kansas town of 13,000, Brad Underwood created his first job mowing neighbors' yards. The most lucrative gig was a $15 payment from the town's newspaper editor. But Underwood said he was raised to work.
That ethic has defined his coaching career. He spent 27 years working his way up from community colleges in Dodge City, Kan., and Daytona Beach, Fla., where he coached, drove the bus and washed the laundry, to what he now considers a career pinnacle.
Underwood, 53, was introduced Monday at the State Farm Center as the new Illinois basketball coach, tasked with rebuilding and revitalizing what has wilted over years into a dormant Big Ten program.
"I've always been a grinder," he said. "I always tell my players, 'Good things happen to those who work hard.' I live by that and stay with my nose to the grindstone and know someday that your opportunity will come."
He said this is the day for him, calling Illinois a "dream job."
Underwood spent one season at Oklahoma State, where he left suddenly a day after an NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan. He previously spent three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, making the tournament each season.
Despite those short stops, Underwood said he considers himself a lifer at Illinois. The Illini, likewise, could use some stability after coaches such as Bill Self and Lon Kruger seemingly used the job as a steppingstone.
"This is it," Underwood said with a nod.
He denied reports that a fractured relationship with Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder and frayed salary negotiations were reasons he left.
But he said he is pleased with the commitment to basketball at Illinois and raved about his early impressions of athletic director Josh Whitman. The Illini will pay Underwood $18 million during a six-year contract, nearly tripling his Oklahoma State salary. He will have $1.4 million per year to pay his staff, including $850,000 for three assistant coaches.
"The most comforting thing for me is Josh has the same passion I do," Underwood said. "That's exciting. That keeps the juices flowing when you know you're in a good place. ... This one is special. (Negotiations) wouldn't have mattered. This was right. I knew."
Whitman acted quickly in replacing John Groce, whom he fired March 11 after five mostly dismal seasons. Whitman said he had an initial list of candidates and Underwood was always on that list. Whitman declined to confirm whether he had first contacted former NBA coach Monty Williams about the vacancy, as the Tribune reported.
He said he initially contacted Underwood's agent Wednesday. Underwood said he did not know Illinois - or other teams - had interest until about 2 1/2 hours after the Cowboys' loss Friday in Indianapolis when his agent called his wife as she walked out of the arena.
Whitman said he talked to Underwood for the first time Saturday morning, when he offered him the job. Underwood said he needed almost no time to consider.
"We recognized that as coaches start to get eliminated from the tournament, if we waited ... we would be putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage," Whitman said, noting other high-profile openings at Indiana, California and Washington.
Whitman said he relied on colleagues such as Illinois alumni Jerry Colangelo and Mannie Jackson and Internet research to vet candidates.
The Illini obtain a coach whose offenses sizzle. The Cowboys were fifth nationally in scoring with 85.7 points per game and ranked first in KenPom.com's offensive efficiency ratings.
Underwood said he developed his coaching style from mentors Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, both of whom he served as an assistant at Kansas State from 2006 to 2012. He followed Martin to South Carolina for the 2012-13 season before Stephen F. Austin offered him his first Division I head coaching job in 2013.
"I was happy," he said of life as an assistant. "I worked with good people. I never wanted to be a head coach just to have the title. Just to go to a bad job to say you've got a title? I have no interest in that."
His years as an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992 to 2003 were formative as well. They helped his family develop an affinity for Illinois, especially his son, Tyler, whose first jersey was a Brian Cook replica. (Underwood said Tyler, a redshirt freshman walk-on at Oklahoma State this season, will transfer to Illinois.)
As an eighth-grader Underwood attended a basketball camp in Kansas led by former Lou Henson assistant Dick Nagy. As a WIU assistant, he was wowed by the state tournaments and devotion to high school basketball.
It's part of the reason, he said, this job thrills him.
"This strip of the country, gosh, it's so important for basketball," he said. "To be the coach in this state at this university is awesome."